When it comes to your food, there’s choices you can make that will create a greener, more environmentally friendly menu. Test your sustainability knowledge with the following 12 food choices.
1. Pasture beef vs. Feedlot beef
Beef farming has one of the highest environmental impacts of all the food groups, with greenhouse gas emissions from beef farming contributing 10% of the total emissions in Australia, mostly in the form of methane. The good news is that emission rates vary with the type of feed used.
On grazing beef farms the majority of the cattle is grass-fed rather than grain-fed with soy or corn (these two grains requiring substantial water, fertilisers, transport and processing), making pasture cattle appear to be the more environmentally sustainable option.
However, a study by the Australian National University compared organic beef farming with conventional feedlot farming and found that the grass-fed beef produced more emissions than the grain-fed beef. Grain-fed farms are also considered more environmentally friendly than large grazing cattle farms as less forest is cleared for the smaller feeding lots and they have strict environmental regulations which protect the water table and control how they manage waste and run-off. Who would have thought?
Winner: Feedlot beef.
2. Fresh fish vs. Farmed fish
Although it sounds more natural, ocean fishing is undertaken on a massive scale that results in enormous fossil fuel usage and huge product wastage. Commercial ocean fishing is also linked to the reduction of fish populations and even the extinction of some marine species. The fossil fuels needed to run the boats and the damage done to reefs and other wildlife areas through the use of dragnets is huge.
In comparison, farmed fish are commonly fed GMO soy and colour pellets and produce large amounts of chemical pollution, which is damaging to the ecosystems and wildlife in the rivers and waterways the fish are grown in. There’s also thought to be more disease in farmed fish.
There’s no clear winner here. The best type of fish would be hand caught from your local, clean waterway.
Winner: Your own hand-caught fish.
3. Eggs vs. Cheese
With cheese production having similar environmental impacts as beef (and being worse for the environment than milk production due to the extra processing), cheese is the obvious bad guy here. If we look at the amount of water needed for cheese production, it’s needed not only for the cattle, but also for irrigating their pastures or for the production of grain feed.
Studies have suggested that one kilogram of cheese takes over 3000 litres of water to make! When you compare this to the significantly smaller environmental impact of raising hens for eggs, it’s easy to see the winner.
4. Lamb vs. Chicken
According to Professor Andy LeBrocque from the University of Southern Queensland, chicken is the most environmentally sustainable livestock. Being small, chickens don’t require much land to thrive and they require less water, feed and are lighter and simpler to transport than larger livestock.
On the other hand, lamb production has the most environmental impact after beef. Lamb farms produce more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken farms, use more water and need more land clearance.
But in a bit of a twist, caged chickens actually produce more pollutants than lamb — so free-range chicken is the winner for making your plate greener.
Winner: Free-range chicken.
5. Brown rice vs Basmati rice
Brown rice comes from paddy rice, with some varieties grown in Australia. There’s only one processing step in the making of brown rice, where the husk is removed. Easy. Australia follows strict water usage regulations, making Australian brown rice one of the most water-efficient in the world.
Basmati rice comes specifically from India and Pakistan, which don’t follow or track water usage or enforce environmental regulations.
Basmati also requires a lot of fossil fuels in getting to your plate. It’s a type of long grain rice which has the husk removed but needs to go through a second stage of polishing before it’s ready for sale, making it less efficient than brown rice.
Winner: Brown rice.
6. Quinoa vs. Chia
Quinoa and chia are some of the hottest superfoods around, but which one is more environmentally sustainable?
Quinoa is a seed grown mostly in the Andean highlands in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Unfortunately, its exploding popularity has caused significant soil erosion in these areas. It’s now also starting to be grown in areas of the USA, Asia and Europe.
Chia seeds, originally from Mexico and Guatemala, are now largely grown in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, where there are strict environmental regulations governing their production.
You should make your choice between the two seeds based on where they’re grown: if cultivated close to you, they will have less environmental impact than if they’ve travelled a million miles to get to your door, so check the country of origin before purchase.
Winner: It depends on where the seed is grown.
7. Dairy milk vs. Alternative milks
Dairy milk impacts the environment in a big way. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural reports, the dairy industry is responsible for up to 4% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and produces 13kg of CO2 per month.
From the production of feed for cows to the processing of the milk, refrigerated transport and the various packaging materials, there’s a big environmental cost.
In general, non-dairy milks require large amounts of processing too but can be more sustainable. For instance, coconut milk uses less water, energy and land and produces fewer emissions than dairy milk — as well as soy, rice or almond milk. Soy and rice milk require a lot of land clearing, while almond milk requires a lot of water.
Winner: Alternative milks.
8. Broccoli vs. Kale
When it comes to fruit and veggies, the main factors dictating environmental impact include the weight and size of the product (determining how much fossil fuel is required to transport it), how far the product has to travel, whether it’s being grown in season or if it’s coming from cold storage, how hardy the plant is, how much wastage results from its growing process, if it’s organic or conventionally farmed and if it’s being wrapped in plastic for sale.
Using these factors to measure kale against broccoli, kale comes in first. It’s hardy and adaptable for many conditions, it’s lighter per bunch than broccoli, it’s not often brought in from overseas, not often wrapped in plastic for sale and it’s easy to buy the organic version — the organic version often being from a local farm.
9. Apples vs. Pineapple
Between apples and pineapples, the most environmentally sustainable fruit is the one that is in season, and doesn’t travel far to reach your home.
If you live in a tropical or temperate area and it’s summer, then pineapple wins, since that’s its growing season.
But if it’s winter and you live in a predominantly cooler climate, apples are the more sustainable choice as they have not travelled too far to get to you, and haven’t been kept in long-term cold storage overseas.
Winner: It depends on your location.
10. Lentils vs. Tofu
Legumes are considered one of the most sustainable crops to grow as they produce very little emissions and don’t need much water compared to other crops.
Most legumes also reintroduce nitrogen to the soil, so they don’t require nitrogen-based fertilisers.
On the other hand, soy production has a massive impact on the environment, with significant amounts of land cleared to grow soy crops and, unless the soy is organic, large amounts of fertilisers and herbicides are used.
In the processing of soy to tofu more emissions are released and there’s more water and energy used, so lentils are the clear winner here.
11. Wheat vs. Oats
In the contest between wheat and oats, wheat is the standout baddy. A massive amount of water is used to irrigate the enormous wheat crops; the harvesting process requires lots of machinery and large amounts of fertilisers are used. The processing of turning wheat into bread also contributes significantly to global warming.
Oats require far less water and processing from beginning to end, so they win this battle.
12. Kangaroo vs. Pork
Pork comes from controlled farms and feeding systems, and kangaroo is almost entirely a wild, roaming animal, grazing where it can.
Kangaroo is undeniably the most sustainable meat out of all livestock, with very little to no feeding lots, chemical wastage or water usage in comparison to pork farms that produce moderate to high chemical pollution and require large volumes of water and energy for production.